Tuesday, September 27, 2011
1 - Why are the words in the confession so generic ("we have been guilty, we have rebelled, we have been unjust, etc.") instead of specific?
2 -How can we confess for all of these things when we clearly haven't committed, let alone repented, for all of them?
3 - Why does the Rambam say that a person who has repented and confessed his error on one Yom Kippur can go back and do so again, despite the fact that he has not wavered in his repentance and has no new infraction to confess?
Overall, there is an even more general difficulty - how can the Rambam say there is a mitzvah for everyone to repent leading up to Yom Kippur? If one committed a transgression and was required to repent for the sin, he or she should do it because of the sin, not on account of Yom Kippur. And if one has not committed a specific sin, what is one supposed to repent for before the Holiday?
These problems are only problems because we assume that the repentance and confession of Yom Kippur is focused on our personal process of self improvement and development. Because we are attempting to understand repentance and confession in that framework, it makes no sense to repeat generic confessions that are unrelated to our individual repentance process.
However, the reality is that the process of repentance we are obliged to go through prior to Yom Kippur is not primarily about correcting our individual sins and flaws (although that is, of course, a wonderful byproduct). Individualistic repentance should be done year round, whenever a mistake has been recognized it must be acknowledged and corrected. There is no need to defer it until Yom Kippur, and it makes little sense for there to be a "deadline" each year for the completion of our self-improvement.
The theme of Yom Kippur is the general awareness of a gulf that exists between a transcendent, metaphysical Creator and His limited, physical and very flawed creations. Our acknowledgment of myriad sins is a manifestation of our awareness of how distant we are from perfection. And our individual and collective repentance at this time, although it certainly serves to improve us and our lives, also serves to highlight the existence of human imperfection in general and to contrast that with the perfection and transcendence of Hashem.
So, although personal development would not necessitate the repetition of confession - what has been rectified is rectified and requires no further discussion or declaration - our past sins, and the sins of others that we have not committed personally, are indeed relevant to our general awareness of the limitations of the human quest to know and serve God. The occurrence of these transgressions in the past, even though they may have been corrected afterwards, still testifies to the reality that we are finite creatures whose understanding and worship of an infinite Creator is necessarily filled with distortions, shortcomings and flaws. These distortions and flaws are what lead us to value the physically pleasurable and the material over the intellectual or spiritual - i.e., to commit intentional or unintentional transgressions.
This approach is clearly supported in the Torah, where we see that one of the main purposes of the Order of the Temple Service was to cleanse and atone for the Sanctuary itself, which "dwells among the Jews amidst their impurity". In other words, the very notion of human beings standing before and worshiping God must be recognized as paradoxical and deeply problematic. We cannot take it for granted; rather, we must realize that the very institution of a Sanctuary or of a way of life or system of Mitzvot that allows human beings to approach the Almighty is almost an absurdity given our physicality and consequent intellectual and moral limitations.
This "absurdity" can only be "tolerated" provided that we are well aware of the difference between our flawed conceptions of God and His worship on one hand and the ultimate reality on the other hand. We demonstrate our awareness by repenting and confessing individually and communally on Yom Kippur, all the while affirming the transcendence, uniqueness and inscrutability of Hashem throughout the prayers. Indeed, a close examination of the Temple Service, especially the entry into the Holy of Holies and the pronouncement of the ineffable name of God - and the linking of those activities, fascinatingly, to the fasting and repentance of the nation - reveals that this distinction between our limited and distorted understanding of metaphysical truth and the awesomeness of metaphysical reality itself is what is being emphasized throughout the process. To confuse the two is either to denigrate the Creator or to arrogantly lift man onto a pedestal of which he is not worthy.
(I do not mean that Hashem is unsatisfied with man's existence and wants us to feel bad - after all, He created mankind the way that it is. What I mean is that Hashem instructs us to recognize the degree to which we fall short of true knowledge and perfection, for our own sake, so that we bear the proper perspective in mind.)
On Yom Kippur, our personal process of repentance becomes the window through which we perceive the abiding reality of our own humble position in the universe and recognize the tremendous kindness bestowed upon us by our Creator. We acknowledge that despite our inability to truly know Him or live by His wisdom in the absolute sense, and despite our harboring countless illusions and distortions in our view of ourselves, our world and our God which, by pure justice, should be intolerable, He nonetheless grants us "forgiveness" and "atonement", the opportunity and the tools to engage in the lifelong process of striving for an ideal which we never more than partially attain.
Friday, September 09, 2011
Only weeks later, further movement in the direction of full-blown egalitarianism is being publicly advocated and endorsed by musmachim of YCT and representatives of Yeshivat Maharat, with the support of other unaffiliated and/or simply non-Orthodox institutions. Those of us who have been monitoring the developments within Open Orthodoxy over the past several years should not be surprised to find its spokespersons giving their rubber stamp to "minyanim" that permit women to lead sections of the tefilla, read from the Torah, and perform other functions that range from the highly questionable to the outright forbidden. Nonetheless, it pains me to witness this turn of events, because I had hoped - against all odds and for the sake of the unity of Klal Yisrael - that this would not happen. What is most troubling tragic is that, due to the slow, quiet process of evolution that is responsible for these changes, the radical quality of their implications has been obscured.
It should be mentioned that the Talmud teaches us that a talented scholar can find numerous seemingly persuasive arguments to permit something that is known to be prohibited. In fact, the ability to do so is considered a sign of tremendous intellectual acumen and a masterful command of Torah knowledge. This means that even a very convincing and well constructed argument can lead to patently false conclusions.
The Open Orthodox camp has marshaled a number of unconventional responsa, original, erudite arguments and abstruse sources to legitimize their positions, just as the Conservative scholars of the 20th century found scattered sources and generated unprecedented arguments to justify their innovations. At the end of the day, however, halakhic tradition beginning with the Mishna, Tosefta and Gemara in Masekhet Megillah has been unequivocal in its stance that women may not read the Torah for the community. The reason behind this principle can be analyzed, discussed, studied and debated, but it remains an iron-clad rule, a dictate of the Sages that we, as Orthodox Jews, must be fully committed to observe.
Aside from the speciousness of creative attempts to "explain away" the halakhic principle that forbids egalitarian Torah reading, the fact is that the traditionally understood meaning of this principle has been applied across the board in our communities for millenia; and this fact, in and of itself, is a sufficient reason to dismiss any and all challenges to its validity. מנהג ישראל תורה היא - the universal, customary practice of the Jewish community is itself an indisputable part of our Oral Tradition.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
R' Kanefsky has now followed up with a post in which he attempts to bring evidence for his claim that changes in situations and circumstances have precipitated changes in halakhic decisions and practice throughout history. In a comment on his post, I pointed out that no change has occurred in the circumstances in our case - the only change has been in the attitudes of people who have largely misunderstood, and therefore object to, the blessing in question.
Allow me to explain a bit further. Scientific advancement has caused change in halakhic practice, but not because the dictates of halakha have changed. On the contrary, the principles of Torah are eternal and not subject to alteration or evolution. The fact that, nowadays, an eight month old fetus is known to be viable, does not change the law of the Torah. The law is, and always was, that we can violate Shabbat in order to save a life. What has changed is our understanding of biology and the increased capacity of medical personnel to save lives, which has expanded the number of circumstances in which Shabbat can reasonably be violated. This has no relevance whatsoever to the proposal that we should erase a blessing from the prayerbook because a segment of the contemporary population that is unschooled in its meaning suddenly finds it offensive.
The R' Kanefsky also makes reference to the institution of Prozbul, which is a mechanism by which the cancellation of loans in the Shemitta (Sabbatical Year) can be sidestepped. I am sure that he is aware of the fact that this example is a favorite of Conservative rabbis who routinely use it to justify and legitimize the innovations they propose. Sadly, it is as irrelevant to his argument as it is to theirs.
As our Rishonim (Medieval Scholars) explain, Hillel worked within the principles of halakha to find a solution. He understood that Shemitta, in our time, is only a Rabbinic institution, and therefore found a Rabbinically sanctioned approach to resolve the problem. He didn't cancel out or eliminate any laws, Biblical or Rabbinic. He developed a solution within the system that is fully consistent with its principles and did not require tampering with or adjusting them.
I would like to progress one step further and examine one of the specific proof texts R' Kanefsky marshals to support his argument. After all, he seems to be doing his best to root his position in traditional sources, and we should give him the benefit of the doubt on this score. Let's see if the source actually states or implies what he claims it does.
R' Kanefsky's post refers to a Tosafot in Masekhet Avodah Zara 15A as an example of halakha changing in response to the emergence of new circumstances. The Tosafot is grappling with an apparent conflict between the customary practice in their time and the law as established in the Talmud. Specifically, the Talmud prohibits the sale of certain kinds of livestock to idolaters. Tosafot observed that, contrary to this ruling, the sale of livestock to idolaters was commonplace in their day, and fully sanctioned by the Rabbinic authorities.
They answer that the Rabbinic prohibition on selling livestock to idolaters only applies to a time in which Jewish communities are independent, united and self-sustaining, such that one who needed to sell an animal could just as easily sell it to a fellow Jew as to an idolater. Nowadays, however, when Jews are interspersed among idolaters and share a common market with them, we have no choice but to sell livestock to idolaters in order to prevent financial loss.
R' Kanefsky wishes to argue, based upon this Tosafot, that the law changed when the circumstances changed. After all, it used to be forbidden for Jews to sell livestock to idolaters; now, given the fact that we coexist with them and would suffer financially otherwise, we are permitted to do so. We see, then, says R' Kanefsky, that the law must be updated to address contemporary needs.
The simplest objection to this line of reasoning is that it is not comparable to the case of שלא עשני אשה at all. The Tosafot do not say that because we are more sensitive to the feelings of the idolaters we must recalibrate our practice. They don't recommend that we sell livestock to idolaters because they will otherwise be offended in some way. But we can leave aside this important point of criticism for a moment and focus on what Tosafot are, indeed, teaching us.
For once we analyze the Tosafot ourselves, we find that the interpretation of their words put forth by R' Kanefsky is fundamentally flawed. The Tosafot, in fact, are saying the opposite of what R' Kanefsky attributes to them. The Tosafot maintain that the law, as originally formulated by our Sages is still 100% valid and binding.
What they are proposing is that, from the outset, the Rabbis only meant to prohibit selling livestock to idolaters when the objective of the seller is to increase his revenue. The Rabbis of the Talmud, who promulgated this legislation, never intended for their prohibition to extend to situations in which financial loss would be incurred.Tosafot are not justifying a change in the law - they are clarifying what they believe to be the proper understanding of the law, which happens to account for the manner in which it was being observed (or, apparently, being neglected to some degree) in their time.
What is the proof that Tosafot uphold the Rabbinic legislation and are merely interpreting the originally intended parameters of the law? How do we know they are not discarding the law in the face of changed circumstances? The answer is the last line of the Tosafot, which R' Kanefsky does not address:
"Rabbenu Barukh ruled that, according to this, it is only in a situation where a Jew purchased a horse for his own use and then decides that he no longer needs it that he is allowed to sell it to an idolater, since otherwise he will incur a financial loss. He is not permitted to purchase horses with the express intent of reselling them in order to make money, since he has the option of not purchasing them to begin with and therefore not incurring any loss."
In other words, the law as stated in the Talmud never changed and is still in effect; its validity and binding status have not been diminished one iota by the changed circumstances. Yes, the Tosafot are interpreting the law in view of the evidence of the Rabbinically-endorsed precedent established in their communities, and they conclude that the law is applicable to a specific set of cases and not others.
But they are not suggesting, in any way, shape or form, that the law itself could or would ever be altered to meet the needs of their generation. Nor are they intimating that such an alteration of the law would be justified by changed circumstances; on the contrary, they realize that contemporary practice must be sanctioned by the law, and for this very reason they offer an interpretation of its parameters that is compatible with the custom of their communities.
In conclusion, it seems to me that R' Kanefsky is "using" sources to support his own methodology rather than studying them to discover the methodology of our Rabbis. Rather than grasp the true message of the Tosafot - that halakha cannot possibly be changed to satisfy our needs - he appears to recast the Tosafot in the image of Medieval Conservative Rabbis who consciously reshape halakha in accordance with their desires and sensibilities. It is unclear how he reconciles this view of the בעלי המסורה with the tenets of Orthodoxy.
This is a very poignant and noteworthy illustration of what is, in my opinion, one of the most worrisome elements of the Open Orthodox approach.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
"Five events occurred on the Seventeenth of Tammuz: The tablets containing the "Ten Commandments" were shattered; the daily sacrifice in the First Temple was discontinued, the wall of Jerusalem was breached prior to the destruction of the Second Temple,the Wicked Apostemos burned a Torah Scroll, and an idol was placed in the היכל, the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple."
Interestingly, five tragedies also occurred on Tisha B'av, the fast we will be observing exactly three weeks from today:
"It was decreed upon the generation that left Egypt that they would not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel, the First Temple was destroyed, the Second Temple was destroyed, a great city named Beitar was captured - it contained tens of thousands of Jews, and they had a great King whom all of Israel and its greatest Sages believed was the Mashiach, and it fell into the hands of the nations, and they were all killed - it was a tragedy as severe as the destruction of the Temple, and on that very day destined for suffering, Turnus Rufus, the wicked Edomite king, plowed the area of the היכל and its environs, in fulfillment of the verse, "Zion will be plowed like a field."
If you examine the basis of each fast carefully, you may note a remarkable parallel between them.
Broken Tablets/Sin of Golden Calf Wandering in Wilderness/Sin of Spies
Interruption of Service First Temple Destruction of First Temple
Breaching of Wall Second Temple Destruction of Second Temple
Burning of Torah Scroll
Dream of Religious/Political Renaissance Crushed
Idol Placed in Sanctuary Sanctuary Totally Plowed
The first tragedy associated with the 17th of Tammuz is the shattering of the tablets, which was the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. The first tragedy associated with the 9th of Av is the decree banning the first generation of Jews from entering the land of Israel, which was the consequence of the sin of the spies. Although, at first blush, these may seem unrelated, the Rabbis tell us that the sin of the Golden Calf established the groundwork for the sin of the Spies, it was the combination of the two that caused the Jews to be forced to wander in the desert for forty years.
Similarly, we observe that a precursor of each tragedy on Tisha B'av manifested itself on the 17th of Tammuz. The discontinuation of the Daily Offering in the First Temple foreshadowed its destruction. The breaching of the wall around Jerusalem was the beginning of the destruction of the Second Temple. The burning of the Torah scroll represented the beginning of the process of "stamping out" the independence of Jewish thought, observance and community - the massacre at Beitar, whose citizens embodied the renewed possibility of a Jewish government founded upon Torah and Mitzvot, was the horrific culmination of that effort.
The question is, then, why isn't Tisha B'av enough? Why must we observe the 17th of Tammuz, if all it commemorates is a pale shadow of the horrific tragedies we will mourn three weeks from now?
I believe the lesson here is a simple but extremely important one - recognize the signs of impending disaster and respond to them before it is too late! Had the Jewish people fully appreciate the implications of the events of the 17th of Tammuz, had they utilized them as a springboard for the self-reflection and repentance they were intended to inspire, then the harrowing tragedies of the 9th of Av would never have come to pass.
Sadly, in our individual as well as our communal lives, we rarely perceive the warning signs that are presented to us. We continue forging ahead along the same path until disaster strikes. I could quote several verses from Proverbs (Mishlei) to illustrate this, or a multitude of passages from Sefer Yirmiyahu that address this, but it would unnecessarily lengthen this post. Suffice it to say that this is a key theme of both books.
Hashem has provided us with a wondrously educational environment in which every action elicits a reaction, every choice has a consequence. Even more beautifully, the severest consequences, generally speaking, do not manifest themselves immediately - there are indications of trouble, subtle at first and then increasingly dire and worrisome, before the waves of crisis inundate us.
One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people as they are portrayed in the Book of Yirmiyahu -and of the fool as he is portrayed in the Book of Proverbs - is the lack of foresight they exhibit in their way of life. Even as their circumstances grow more and more intolerable, they remain stubbornly attached to the habits, beliefs and attitudes that led them into trouble to begin with.
Today, people with failing businesses or failing relationships are convinced that doing more or less of the same kinds of things will save them from trouble. People who are in a spiritual rut are confident that more or less of the same behavior will lead them back in the direction of success. The truth is, however, that stumbling and struggling are signs that something is WRONG, the stumbling and struggling will intensify if the status quo is maintained, and it is unlikely that the downward spiral will reverse itself unless the person involved decides to consciously change his/her course in a fundamental, not just a quantitative, way.
A terrific case in point is Border's - they are finally liquidating all of their stores, and it did not come as a surprise to anyone. When things took a serious downturn for them, they closed many of their locations and awaited a bailout from heaven...What they failed to do, however, was recognize the errors that were responsible for the initial "warning signs" of trouble and make the fundamental shifts in vision and strategy that would have been necessary to regain a footing in the market. They could conceive of doing more or less of what they were accustomed to doing, but what they really needed was to acknowledge the realities of the current world and pursue a totally new and more adaptive approach.
My children truly hate smoke detectors. They are scared out of their wits when something burns in the kitchen and the alarm goes off. Many times they have requested that we remove or dismantle the smoke detectors once and for all. What they don't realize is that the smoke detectors serve an important purpose - they draw our attention to the presence of smoke, and where there is smoke, there very well might be fire! Getting rid of the smoke alarm might temporarily relieve us of the pain of hearing its shrill sound, but this would leave us ignorant of potentially serious problems and vulnerable to far worse calamities.
The events of the 17th of Tammuz were the smoke alarm of the Jewish people. They signaled the beginnings of the withdrawal of God's providence from the nation and should have moved them to acknowledge their waywardness and repent immediately. This would have allowed them to avert disaster. Unfortunately, they opted to disable the smoke alarm rather than investigate the emergent crisis to which it was pointing.
Let us learn the lesson of the 17th of Tammuz and respond wisely to the cries of the smoke alarms in our lives.
Have a meaningful fast.
Friday, July 01, 2011
I will be presenting summaries of the in-depth classes in Halakha that we conduct here at Magen David Sephardic Congregation every Thursday night. Currently, we are studying the laws of Milk and Meat in the Shulhan Arukh.
It is not meant to replace this blog, just to supplement....
Thursday, March 31, 2011
I Can Say Goodbye
I can say goodbye to you today
Like a flower says goodbye
To the soil that fills its veins with life,
And wrapped gingerly in a blanket of tears is laid
On chilly graveyard’s impenetrable ground
Or is left by fluttering hearts to wait and wilt
On unrequited love’s cruel threshold.
I can live apart from you tomorrow
But only if a rainbow’s graceful arc can shine undimmed
Without the brilliant shades of sunlight’s palette
And the canvas of misty air on which she paints.
I ask myself,
Will not my ears be deaf to music
Once emptied of the soothing balm of your sweet voice?
Will not my arms be cold and cracked as stone
Once robbed of all the warmth of your embrace?
What picture of the world can I envision
Without your eyes to light the paths before me
Without your words to mollify my spirit
And your hand to lend me strength when I fall down?
How then will I take leave of you today
And how will I move on alone tomorrow?
I do not know.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
However, one cannot help but notice that the last time the word "gather" or "congregate" was used, it was under very different circumstances, "And the people gathered around Aharon and said, get up and fashion for us a god..." It is no accident that the same verb utilized in the context of the building and worship of the Golden Calf is now employed to describe the rededication of the Jewish people to the service of Hashem.
Indeed, for all the similarity between the 'gatherings', there is a noteworthy difference. The first time the verb is used, the motive behind the gathering emerges from the people themselves - "vayiqahel ha-am", and the people congregated of their own accord - whereas the second time, it is Moshe who invites them to congregate. The first time, the emotions of fear, panic and insecurity that overwhelmed the people created mass hysteria and moved them to gather together for idolatrous purposes. The second time, the wise leadership of Moshe brought the crowd together for educational reasons.
The contrast between the episodes highlights an important principle - that community, when its resources are combined and its focus is unified, is truly a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, when this force is an unbridled one, this pooling of untold energy, ambition and excitement can eventuate in catastrophe.
Only when the community comes together in a well-orchestrated, goal-directed and intelligent manner, with clear vision and with proper spiritual leadership and guidance, can we be confident that its tremendous power will be harnessed for noble ends.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
I suppose the thrust of this blog post is that I am set to attempt yet another foray into the blogosphere. No big promises or broad agendas this time. Just reopening a door to a realm that once brought me great intellectual satisfaction, offered me tough challenges that sharpened my thinking, and provided an opportunity for me to share I ideas I otherwise never would have published.
I have so much material, and no particularly clear sense of where to start. But I remain keenly interested in starting somewhere.